Durham’s 1971 Valentine’s Day murders remain a mystery

CorrespondentFebruary 18, 2014 

— On a cold, rainy night in February 1971, 19-year-old Jesse McBane of Pittsboro picked up his girlfriend, Patricia Mann, and the couple excitedly headed to a Valentine’s Dance at Watts Hospital in Durham.

After the dance, McBane, a tall, good-looking student at N.C. State University, and Mann, a 20-year-old petite nursing student at Watts Hospital, walked back to her dormitory, and she signed out noting she would be back by the 1 a.m. curfew.

“She never came back,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Investigator Tim Horne.

That wasn’t like her, and the next morning, Mann’s roommates began looking for her. One of them found McBane’s locked car parked at a lovers’ lane near Hillandale Golf Course.

The girls called the Durham Police Department, but the police weren’t enthusiastic about looking for the young couple, according to Horne. After all, they had only been missing a few hours.

The couple’s families were notified that morning they were missing, according toMann’s cousin, Carolyn Spivey, who grew up next door to her in Sanford.

“I knew immediately,” Spivey said. “I just got the sickest feeling in my stomach that something terrible had happened. She was a good girl. She went by the rules.”

Then on Feb. 25, a surveyor working in the woods off Howe Street in northwest Durham saw what looked like a mannequin’s leg.

When he looked closer, he realized it was the leg of a woman, and she was lying dead next to a young man. The bodies were covered with leaves. Later that day, they were officially identified as Mann and McBane.

Their hands had been tied with thick ropes behind their backs to a tree, and ropes were stretched tight and knotted around their necks. Although still tied to the tree, their upper bodies had slumped over so that they laid side by side next to each other in the woods.

At the medical examiner’s office, they discovered McBane and Mann had several strangle marks on their necks, as though the rope had been tightened, then loosened and then tightened again.

“Investigators then and now believe they were tortured,” Horne said.

Locally it became known as the Valentine’s Day Murder, and it was big news on TV, in newspapers, on the radio and in detective magazines.

Because the bodies were found in Orange County, but their likely kidnapping occurred in Durham, the Orange and Durham county sheriff’s offices, the Durham Police Department and the State Bureau of Investigation all worked on the case, trying to identify and check out possible suspects.

“There were a few that did not cooperate, that would not take a polygraph, but the vast majority did,” Horne said about the suspects. “Some were just formalities because they weren’t that great of a suspect in the first place.”

The case went cold.

“No one ever really zeroed in on any one of the suspects,” Horne said.

Never forgot

Of course, Mann’s and McBane’s family and friends never forgot. Mann’s extended family all lived on the same street in Sanford, plus Carolyn was dating and later married McBane’s best friend, David Spivey, so they were tight-knit group.

People constantly called them with rumors and tips or to ask about the case, Carolyn Spivey said. Each time, it would open up the old wounds, and the nightmares would return, she said.

Four years ago, she heard a rumor about a possible suspect.

She contacted Horne, and he and Investigator Dawn Hunter began digging through the old boxes of records and evidence. Their four-year investigation led them through many twists and turns as they rechecked out the original suspects and looked for new ones. After Horne and Hunter amassed as much information as they could, Horne called up the original investigators who were still alive and asked them to come to the sheriff’s office.

“I put on a presentation and put on all the evidence I had,” Horne said. “There was silence in the room.”

Some of information was new to the individual investigators because the different agencies investigating back in the 1970s hadn’t always shared their information with each other. If they had, it might have made a difference, he said.

One or two people who were suspects back in the early 1970s still were good suspects, and one of them is still alive. He was affiliated with Watts Hospital at the time of the murders, Horne said.

“He was a suspect and a person of interest back then, and he still is,” Horne said.

Horne declined to say how or why the man became a suspect, but when investigators back then asked him to take a lie detector test, he called his lawyer and declined.

During his investigation, Horne again asked the man to take a lie detector test and also to give a DNA sample, and again the man called his lawyer and declined.

Not giving up

Horne hasn’t given up. DNA testing wasn’t available in the 1970s, but it could be the key to solving the case now.

“Clearly we don’t have enough evidence for prosecution and court, but DNA is an ace in this card game, and if it comes back in our favor, it would be very hard for this person of interest ... for his DNA not to be on it,” Horne said.

Although Spivey and her family have not received all the answers they wanted, she feels some satisfaction.

She and her family members heard details about the deaths that were hard to hear, plus she always felt guilty that she hadn’t asked for the case to be reopened, she said.

“When I finally did, it made me a stronger person,” she said. “I did it, and I lived through it. I can handle all the information that I’ve been given. I feel like Pat is proud of me, and she’s proud that I did do this.”

 

Velliquette: bavelliquette@gmail

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